“Living Inside the Grid” is New Museum senior curator Dan Cameron’s first group exhibition at a U.S. museum since 1982, and it shows. Cameron has mounted more recent and successful solo-artist exhibits, but here he succumbs to a classic curatorial pitfall: starting with a theory—in this case, the “inhabited grid” of information technology—and plugging in the art that best exemplifies it. While Cameron has put together an impressively global group of artists, he packages them in a context that manages to be at once condescending and opaque, overly restrictive yet lacking focus.
New Yorkers know that the grid can be a structure that enables heterogeneity; as Rem Koolhaas famously wrote in Delirious New York, “The Grid defines a new balance between control and de-control in which the city can be at the same time ordered and fluid, a metropolis of rigid chaos.” Cameron, meanwhile, treats it as a device of oppressive rigor and all-encompassing uniformity, writing, “From morning commutes . . . all the way to the last check of e-mails at night, we involve ourselves in an infinite network of grids, which act in obvious or hidden ways to order our movements, our work, our thoughts, our leisure time and probably our dreams.”
Part of the problem lies in using the grid as a stand-in for systems, networks, and power structures of all sorts, from the harmless to the truly insidious. The catalog and wall text quote liberally from cyber-theorists and their predecessors, discussing smart bombs, network culture, and virtual reality. It’s all too much for the beleaguered grid, and the show rapidly deteriorates into a contest between surveillance paranoia and hackneyed techno-optimism.
Thus, the four-person Danish collective N55 gives us Public Things, a polyethylene modular “self-sufficient environment” emitting ambient lounge music that is without a doubt the silliest thing in the show; its components include a bathtub the size of a single subway seat and a bed made of thin sheets of plastic. Meanwhile, fellow Danes Elmgreen and Dragset attempt to re-erect the exhausted Panopticon via their prison door with peephole and Italian artist Monica Bonvicini raids Home Depot for a monstrous system of interlocking walls and fences that ostensibly critiques “architecture’s relationship to capitalism.” Upon encountering Rogelio López Cuenca’s text-based installation in the stairwell, one section leaps out: “Today there is more and more talk about space. And most of it is empty. I refer to the talk.”
That said, a few works hold their own. Foremost is Tomoko Takahashi’s set of videos showing the artist’s staging of a ticker-tape parade minus the parade; huge white bunches of the stuff float onto the street from the windows of a tall building and are giddily tossed about below, evoking a surprise snowstorm or the imaginary blizzard of television static. One of Takahashi’s entropic room-size installations would have been a more obvious choice, though not necessarily a better one. In another compelling video, the late French Israeli artist Absalon acts out mysterious domestic rituals in an all-white, retro-futuristic interior; his performance is equal parts Bruce Nauman and Woody Allen in Sleeper.
These videos are oases of humor and humanism in an environment that simultaneously criticizes and reinforces institutionalized passivity. Egbert Trogemann’s photographs of expectant game show audiences set the tone; it’s a shame, because the flashy sets are an interesting subject on their own. So is a Romanian re-creation of the set from Dallas, as seen in Sean Snyder’s photographs and videos, but it’s almost too much of a pre-fab project. Mark Lombardi’s flowchart drawings on Iran-Contra and Neil Bush promise to activate the synapses; unfortunately, his presence has been diluted by countless group-show appearances in the last few years.
Part of a three-show series on “Spatial Dynamics: Perceptions in a Digital Age,” “Living Inside the Grid” has some of the same problems that plagued earlier tech-surveys like the Whitney’s 2000 “Bitstreams and Data Dynamics”—namely, an infatuation with all things “interactive.” In a typical example, Camille Utterback uses heat-sensing technology to map observers’ paths onto a Pollock-like projected field. Makrolab, the Slovenian artist Marko Peljhan’s satellite-transmission-intercept station, is especially frustrating; viewers will gain far more from reading about the democratic nature of the project than from listening to static on the provided headphones.
Were it 1999 and not 2003, “Living Inside the Grid” might at least feel timely. Right now, we all have more pressing concerns than the mundane predicament of being tethered to our computers. The day may indeed come when, as Cameron predicts, “the notion of living ‘off the grid’ will no longer have meaning”—in which case, the grid will have engineered its own obsolescence.